The content and opinions found on this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect any position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.

September 22, 2011

Some Other Kind of Justice

Not long ago, I was walking back from dinner at a Thai restaurant in Kampala with a large-ish group of friends. During our walk, we had thinned out to a widely spaced, nearly single file line, with two small clusters of people at the head and tail. It was fairly dark, given that it was night and Kampala is probably among the most poorly lit cities in existence. But the stroll along the edge of the steep, thickly forested ridge that leads down to the city's golf course was nonetheless enjoyable.

I was walking near the front of the line when suddenly I heard a frantic shriek from behind. I whirled around to see my friend Caroline (I'm not at liberty to use her real name), who had been walking by herself in the middle of the pack, being grabbed by a young guy who had popped out of the darkness of the woods.

Almost instantly, three boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers appeared. They pulled over, dropped their bikes on the side of the road, and ran towards the slope, ostensibly to help, but more likely to exact a violent retribution on the man grabbing Caroline. (In Uganda, the only real justice is mob justice, the cops largely being corrupt, incompetent, or just plain absent. When somebody is caught stealing in the market, it's customary for a crowd of vendors to turn on the thief and beat him mercilessly with tire irons and wood slats until he goes unconsious or dies. I've seen the former happen at the large produce market in Hoima town.)

By the time the boda drivers - and I - reached the spot where Caroline had been grabbed, both she and her attacker had tumbled down the muddy slope into the woods. We rushed over, shouting to Caroline and  scanning the with our cell phone flashlights. We found her, frightened and crying, but okay. The attacker had tried to abduct her, but when that failed, he attempted to make off with her purse. Caroline, though terrified, had clung bravely to the purse as they fell down the hill, refusing to give it up. When they both regained their footing, the attacker gave up and fled through the trees.

Almost too late, a police officer wearing green camouflage fatigues came running across the street, weapon drawn. "Where did he go?" the officer demanded. We pointed down the steep slope, into the shadowy tangle of trees. Wasting no time, he cocked his AK-47 with a loud KA-CHUNK and disappeared into the woods.

Unfortunately, the would-be thief was long gone, no doubt having sprinted halfway across the golf course immediately after failing to snatch Caroline's purse. I carefully descended the muddy slope with some of the boda boda drivers, only to find the police officer standing and shaking his head disappointedly.

"We are thieves, we Ugandans and Nigerians. Even me," he said. I didn't ask him to clarify that.

As the situation was no longer tense, the officer and the boda drivers began to laugh heartily, congratulating Caroline on being such a strong fighter and resisting the attack. The would-be thief hadn't managed to hurt Caroline or take anything of value from her, but she had lost one of her brown flip-flops in her chaotic slide down the hill. We searched up and down the slope with our flashlights for a while, but it didn't take long to realize that a brown sandal would be more or less impossible to find under piles of rotting leaves and mud in the dark of night. We gave up the search and walked back up the slope to the main road.

Up top, we brushed ourselves off and comforted a teary, visibly shaken Caroline. We thanked the boda drivers for their help, and they sped off into the night on their motorcycles. The police officer ejected an unused bullet from the AK-47. "I wouldn't have even wasted bullets on that one. I would have just knifed him," he chuckled, toying with the unaffixed bayonette mounted below the gun's barrel. I noticed he wasn't carrying handcuffs. To this day, I'm still shocked and angered by the attack on Carloine. But stabbing someone to death for a failed theft? That's some other kind of justice.

August 14, 2011

Responsibility & Fate

A month and half ago, I was freezing my ass off.

It was a Monday morning. I was sitting outside the school office, spaced out like I usually am after teaching my 8 am physics class. An impenetrably thick layer of clouds had decided to usurp the normally fair skies of Kiziranfumbi that day, driving the temperature down to a frigid 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Goosebumps dotted my bare arms as I sat there in a rickety wooden student desk, quietly reflecting that my decision to wear a short-sleeved polo shirt to work that morning had been a mistake.

"How can you stand this cold?" my headmaster, Fred, asked.

In truth, I found it rather unpleasant. But I'm in total denial about how much of a weather wimp I've become after a year and half of living in the tropics.

"We Americans are used to it," I replied, secretly longing for my fuzzy black Mountain Hard Wear fleece.

"Well, I can't stand it," Fred said. "I'm going to the center for a cup of hot tea. Can I borrow your bicycle?"

Now normally I would deny a request like this. My bike is a secondhand mountain bike, or "sport bike," as they're called here, from Japan. Cosmetically, it's a piece of shit. A large chunk of the plastic gear guard is missing, the handlebar grips are coming apart, and the brakepads and tires probably haven't been replaced in a decade. Americans wouldn't think twice about chucking this thing in the trash on bulky waste pickup day (shoutout to my dad, who rescues still functional bikes from the trash!). But to a rural Ugandan, my bike is a coveted possession. A sport bike is several notches up from their heavy, rusted, fixed speed workhorse bikes, which—while good for hauling water from the borehole or carrying large bundles of sugarcane, goats, bedframes, or coffins—are more often than not missing crucial components, like pedals.

In the 15 months I'd worked with Fred, though, I'd come to know that he's a fairly decent, trustworthy guy. That's saying a lot for a school headmaster, a demographic that is notorious for their corruption. Ugandan headmasters typically siphon money away from their schools for private use, hire staff based on personal connections rather than merit, rule with an iron fist, and generally abuse their power in other ways—and get away with it. Fred, thankfully, shows none of these qualities, which is why I trust him more than almost anyone I work with. So naturally, when he asked to borrow my bike, I let him.

An hour later, Fred returned. My bike was intact, but the cable lock was completely busted. Fred had locked it around the handlebars in a way that prevented the rider from using the brakes, and then somehow had dislocated the key slot so that it couldn't be unlocked. Needless to say, I was a little angry about this. I'd used that same lock hundreds of times and never had any problems, yet in the one time Fred used it, he had managed to destroy the thing. But something like this was to be expected from the lock's inferior Chinese construction. Rather than make a big deal out of it, I simply asked Fred to buy me a new lock the next time he was in Hoima (they only cost like $2), to which he agreed. I then fetched a butane tank and a Bunsen burner from the lab and set about melting the old lock apart.

Some days later, I was rummaging around the cluttered lab storage room, gathering equipment to do a demonstration of heat convection for my Senior 1 physics class, when my good friend Jotherm, the lab manager, came in. We started talking and he mentioned that the headmaster had grumbled to him about having to buy me a new bike lock. Apparently, Fred was annoyed that I had asked him to pay the full cost for the new lock, as opposed to splitting the replacement cost with him 50-50.

I had stumbled a critical difference between how Americans and Ugandans assign blame and resolve conflicts. To an American, my solution to the bike lock issue was the obvious, logical one: Fred had borrowed my bike. Therefore, he had automatically assumed complete responsibility for it while it was under his control. He would be expected to pay for any damage caused to the bike or its accessories during the period he used it, simple as that. The terms of this contract were—to me, anyway—implied and trivial. They did not need to be stated; they were assumed.

Unfortunately, this is not how things are done in Uganda. Here, when a friend borrows your property, you both enter into a nonverbal agreement to temporarily share responsibility for the object. The owner can never completely relinquish responsibility, but since the owner gives up a certain amount of control over the object by lending it out, it is only natural that the borrower assumes some responsibility to account for the uncertainty he has introduced to the situation by removing the object from the owner's careful watch. Since responsibility is shared, both parties must contribute to repair or replacement costs in the case that the object is damaged while the borrower uses it. That is precisely why Fred was surprised that I asked him to pay for a new bike lock in full. In his mind, he was not solely responsible for the lock breaking.

This speaks volumes about how Ugandans view control in their lives. There is a great deal of fatalism in this country. Few people seem to feel that they are truly the masters of their own lives, and in many ways, they aren't. Uganda is an agricultural society. The welfare of its people and the health of its economy depend tremendously on rainfall patterns and crop yields. Not even the industrialized world has control over these factors, but the advantage of industrialization is that low crop yields rarely have catastrophic effects on the livelihood of the average citizen, due to the immense diversification of these economies and their employment sectors. But in Uganda, a bad growing season can prevent parents from raising the fees necessary to send their children to school, or feeding their family adequately, or keeping a sick relative alive by footing his or her hospital bills.

Moreover, anyone born into this society inherits the legacy of decades of misrule by despots who have all laughably called themselves "President," the ineffectiveness of a pseudo-democratic parliamentary republic at addressing the dire needs of its people, and the economic hardships introduced by over a century of exploitation under British colonial governance. Ugandans have the odds stacked against them; it is understandable that many feel powerless to improve their lot in life.

All of this translates into a deep, collective fatalism, the belief that one's destiny is determined entirely by uncontrollable external factors or acts of God. (As a side note, I take the admitedly cynical view that the main reason Ugandans are so religious is not that they place great value on showing reverence for God, but because they believe prayer will magically bring them meat and money and other earthly possessions that will assuage their hardships. The word "to pray" in Runyoro, kusaba, is synonymous with "to ask for." Thus, whenever you pray, you are really asking for something. I am not sure that kusaba carries the same sense of worshipping as "to pray" does in English.) Perhaps this explains why Fred expected to share responsibility for the broken bike lock: such things just happen, and to blame any one individual for a small, random act of God is unfair. It is up to all of us to collectively deal with the erratic behavior of the universe. A man alone cannot best fate.

Bus Salesmen

On a recent routine bus ride to Kampala, there was an obnoxious salesman selling some kind of minty balm for soothing headaches. Salesman are a common feature of long distance Ugandan bus rides. They give long-winded speeches about how a particular herbal tea will cure HIV or how a certain brand of soap will boost your man's libido, and inevitably some poor, ignorant passengers will believe the outrageous claims and shell out the money for snake oil.

I hate these sales pitches with a passion, partly because I want to enjoy my bus ride in peace, and partly because I feel like I need to protect the less educated, who are more susceptible to such exploitation. In America, advertising like that on a bus would never fly. At the very least the bus lines would have anti-solicitation rules. More likely, the salesmen would be afraid of getting sued for spreading misinformation to sell a product. Here, though, there's no protection for the consumer. It's up to the individual to make their own judgement on whether a goods or service provider is being truthful. There is so little threat of being caught for, well, anything, that people will lie blatantly and engage in egregious acts of deception if it means they'll get paid at the the end of the day. Which obviously enrages me.

It doesn't help that Ugandans generally have little business sense, because the bus companies would probably never think of banning on-board advertising to improve the customer experience and give themselves a competitive edge. Often, I am driven by a self-righteous vigilante streak to directly tell the bus salesmen to stop their endless babbling, or to tell the passengers near me that the salesman is lying and nobody should buy his products, but these tactics have so far failed to change anything.

July 11, 2011

An update on my Scrabble project

As schools let out for summer break back in America, the second trimester of the 2011 school year is in full swing here in Uganda. I find myself very busy these days, and not just with teaching (though they have me teaching an extra physics class this year). Since the beginning of the year, I've been working hard on a project that will increase the school's effectiveness at providing a quality education, without costing much money: making Scrabble boards from local materials for students to play. I wrote a rather long post about my idea for this project last year, but it took some time to become situated at school before I could get it off the ground. Now, though, the project is well on its way.

Scrabble is my favorite board game because it combines my love of words and numbers with strategy, competition, and entertainment. In addition to being challenging and fun, it's also a hell of good way to pick up vocabulary words and improve spelling. Hoping to pass these educational benefits on to my students, I figured out a way to make Scrabble boards locally, on the cheap. The commercial version—an imported product whose price is subject to exchange rate fluctuations—currently retails for around $25 to $30 in Uganda. My local version, on the other hand, costs about $3.50 to produce. This is completely affordable for a government school that, due to a nationwide bureaucratic snafu, had until very recently received exactly 0% of its allotted funding for the 2011 school year (Uganda is plagued by corruption and incompetence at every level; I am no longer surprised by things like this.) A complete game consists of a board made from a piece of plywood painted with enamel paint squares, a simple, tailored cloth tile bag with a drawstring, a tile rack made from glued-together wood scraps, and a set of 1 inch square wooden tiles, labelled with permanent marker. The tiles themselves are the only game component made from outside materials; my grandmother in North Carolina shipped me several hundred blank ones that her woodcarver friend had left over from a previous project, making my job significantly easier. Thanks, Grandma!

Paul, a student in the Senior 5 class, paints a Scrabble board using a hand-cut stencil.
From the beginning, I've tried to involve my students in the process of creating the games. There's a whole lot they can get out it. For one, they're learning a practical, marketable skill: how to paint a board or sign. Nearly all signs in Uganda are hand painted because computerized printing services are expensive and labor is cheap. Sign lettering and graphics are produced by cutting out a stencil from manila paper or plastic film (usually discarded X-ray prints or something similar) and sponge-painting the cut-outs using torn-up pieces of foam mattress. This is the exact process we use for the Scrabble boards, and look! They turn out great:
The kids are also learning how to use the geometric construction skills I teach them in math class to draw perfect grids and perpendicular bisectors with a ruler and compass. Maybe some of them will be inspired to become architects, engineers, or go into construction; who knows? At the very least, they're coming to understand that they have the capacity to design, and to create, and that it doesn't take a whole lot of resources or a degree in fine art to do either of those things.

Above all else, by using students to create the game boards, I'm trying to ensure community ownership of the project. This is critical for sustainability. Billions of dollars in foreign aid are squandered in the devloping world every year, simply because the money goes to fund projects that were not initiated, embraced, or carried out by the communities they serve. Rather, many projects are imposed on the communities by the industrialized donor nations. Libraries and schools are built, clothing is given away, and vegetable seeds are distributed to farmers, all paid for by donor dollars. But as soon as the charitable gift giving is over, the donors fly home and everything turns to shit. Brand new libraries go unused because a reading culture was never promoted, shoes donated to schoolchildren are sold by their parents (leaving the children barefoot, as before), and exotic seeds are thrown away, because nobody learned how to grow that particular kind of crop, which had no place in the traditional cuisine, anyway. At the end of the day, the donors have wasted vast amounts of time and money, while the recipients, who really are no better off than they were before, are left greedy for more free handouts.

There's a right way and a wrong way to do development, and I've seen far too much of the latter in this aid-choked country. Take my friend Jake's school, Pope Paul Anaka S.S. in northern Uganda, for example. The school's headmaster is a wizard at obtaining foreign grant money. The school compound boasts several sparklingly clean, modern classroom blocks, a brand new library, and a robust computer lab, financed entirely by NGOs like Invisible Children. Yet the school is ranked among the worst in the country, worse than mine, even, which has substantially fewer resources and infrastructure. The donors, cleary, were misguided in their approach to solving the school's problems. In trying to bring it up to the standards of the western world, they focused on superficial flaws (i.e. aging, low-quality buildings) and not the underlying reasons for its failures as an academic institution (namely, a corrupt administration and undertrained teachers). A "solution" was imposed from outside without an understanding of the rot on the inside. The community's silent cry was for better teachers, better teaching methods, and therefore better educated students, not a swanky school compound.

But back to Scrabble. I am proud of this project because it is simple, fun, effective, and most importantly, because of its community ownership. Although I originally came up with the idea, the school has footed the bill for the game materials, not aid organizations, students have created the boards, and will continue to play the game and teach others how to play, hopefully long after I leave this country. That's what sustainability is. Already, there's a core group of students who—without my urging—come to the school office nearly every day to borrow the boards so that they can play after class. Other students watch them play, learn the rules, and then eventually play the game themselves. Soon, we'll have enough players to hold a school-wide Scrabble tournament, something that the students are very excited about.

So much of what I and most other Peace Corps Volunteers do on a day-to-day basis does make a positive impact on the people we work with, but it may take decades for the results to become visible. This is especially true in teaching; the handful of current African heads of state that were educated by Peace Corps Volunteer teachers (Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni included) is testament to the work we do. Still, it's incredibly rewarding to see the fruit of my labor, for once. Other teachers at my school have seen what I've been doing and have offered their own words of praise and encouragement. Perhaps the most inspiring came from Roggers, a math teacher, who came up to me, pointed to a Scrabble board, and said, "This is what we're lacking in Africa. This is practical, and students are probably learning more from it than anything we teach them in class." I beamed when I heard this. At that moment, I knew that even if nothing else went right for the rest of my service, even if my students continued to perform abysmally on their exams, even if every single project I did in the future failed miserably, that I could look back on Scrabble as something that irrefutably made a positive difference in my community, justifying my being here. Mission accomplished.

A Runyoro language game in progress. As a side project, I designed a custom tile distribution based on how frequently different letters are used in the language, using some hand-coded text processing software and regression analysis. Runyoro's extensive used of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes really lends itself to the word-extending that you have to do to play Scrabble competitively. We're still working the kinks out of the game, but it's been fun and I've picked up a bunch of obscure vocabulary and grammar from playing with my kids.

Leaving a legacy.

April 25, 2011

4th of Jul-island

A lot of people have this misconception that Peace Corps is some huge, selfless sacrifice, a sacrifice made with the goal of helping others, but still a sacrifice. On paper it certainly sounds this way: you've got to pack up your life, say goodbye to everyone you know, move halfway around the world, complete an excrutiating training program, settle by yourself in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of strangers who don't speak your language, and work on development projects for two years. On top of that, you must give up many basic creature comforts and do it all for less than minimum wage. Because of this, some refer to the experience as "self-inflicted masochism."

But the reality is that this can be a pretty kickass lifestyle. I teach seven 80-minute classes per week. If you include the time I spend grading assignments and planning lessons, that's maybe a 25-hour work week. There's no boss breathing down my neck and virtually no chance of losing my job. I receive one of the best healthcare packages on the planet, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Did I mention 24 paid vacation days a year? Sure, I'm paid a paltry $300 monthly living allowance. But when your rent is free, electricity is $5 a month, and $3 easily buys a day's worth of food, that $300 goes quite a long way. Especially when you consider the following indulgence: celebrating the 4th of July on a Kenyan billionaire's private tropical island in Lake Victoria, food and homemade banana rum included, for 20 bucks a night.

Banda Island is located 40 kilometers south of Entebbe, which served as the country's administrative seat during British colonial rule ("Entebbe" means "chair" in Luganda, an apt name selection by the Brits), and currently is home to Uganda's only international airport. After setting my midterm exams last July, I headed to the port of Kasenyi to take the boat down to Banda with a few other PCVs.

It turns out that there are no docks at Kasenyi, nor are there ferries. Instead, small, hand-crafted wooden boats perch about 10 meters offshore, awaiting passengers travelling to the Ssese Islands. The only apparent reason why the boats are parked like this is to place a short stretch of waist-deep water between dry land and the boats. This creates a wholly unnecessary, but lucrative, job for the local men: hoisting Ssese-bound travellers onto their shoulders, and carrying them out to the boats.
With our backpacks filled with cameras and iPods and dry clothing, we had no choice but to pay the men to carry us. One by one, we were loaded onto our boat (poorly, I'll add, since some people ended up getting their legs wet, defeating the purpose of being carried), and subsequently asked for ridiculous sums of money. "20,000 shillings!" one man demanded from my friend, Nathalie. "5000!" my carrier shouted at me. Now, I'd estimate that 1000 shillings has the same purchasing power in Uganda as perhaps $3 spent in America, even though it's worth only about 42 cents at the current exchange rate. So essentially, Nathalie and I were being charged $60 and $15, respectively, for a sloppily-executed shoulder ride! I handed my carrier two 500-shilling coins and laughed in his face. That was all he was going to get out of me.

The boat pulled away from land and we began our journey south of the equator. Given the situation, it seemed an appopriate time to listen to "I'm on a Boat" by the Lonely Island. An iPod and portable speakers were pulled out, and soon we were all singing about "busting five knots" and fucking mermaids. There were a few Ugandan passengers with us, but we figured that the 4th of July justified us being ugly Americans, just this one time.

Five hours later, it seemed almost comical to think that being on a boat would ever be something to brag or sing about. Four foot waves had been pounding us from the front (sorry, "the bow") nearly the entire way and it didn't look like we were getting any closer to the island. Water bottles had been urinated in, and then accidentally spilled because of the boat's rocking. A penis (Boy Devon's) had been spotted by mistake while it was filling one of these bottles. Rather than exciting its female viewer (Girl Devon), it caused her to vomit multiple times over the side of the boat. One girl in our group, who was suffering from an untimely case of giardia, crapped her panties. A few compassionate Volunteers assisted her in the clean-up while everyone else turned away, trying to ignore the unmistakable aroma of poo beginning to taint the air. The sun had gone down, and damp with schistosomiasis-infested lakewater, we started to seriously question whether we would reach dry land at all.
Thankfully, it was only another 40 minutes or so before the boat pulled up to a bank, dumped us on land, and sped off before we got a chance to ask why Banda Island Resort looked like a deserted grassy knoll. Where were the beach cottages? The volleyball net? And most importantly, where was the banana rum?

We had been scammed. The boat was supposed to take us directly to the resort, but instead dropped on the wrong side of the island so that another boat driver, conveniently waiting for us at the drop point, could charge us 20,000 shillings for a ride to the other side. Once again, we grudgingly handed over our money for an unnecessary ride.

Finally, finally, FINALLY we reached the resort. We were greeted by a palm frond beach fire, a pack of barking dogs, and two Israeli girls. The girls, fresh out of compulsory military service, had been invited to take care of the resort for a few weeks, after meeting its wealthy owner on their post-service travels in East Africa. They helped us unload our food and backpacks, which had done an excellent job of soaking up the vile liquids that had collected in the bottom of the boat, onto the beach, then showed us up to the island's "castle" for dinner.

Dinner in the "castle"
The rest of our Independence Day weekend, thank God, went a lot smoother than the boat ride. We packed in many hours of hardcore unwinding: reading in the hammocks strung from some lakeside trees out back of the castle, playing cards on the beach, swimming in the water (while praying we wouldn't contract schisto) and hiking up the island's main hill for a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding islands. The place was gorgeous and chill, and we had it all to ourselves, except for the Israeli caretakers, the cook staff, and an extremely stoned South African Member of Parliament (out of courtesy, I won't post his name) with travel buddy in tow.

Foreground: A Ugandan mancala game called omweso (way better and more complex than regular mancala). Background: someone chilling out in a hammock
Get out of my picture, bitch!
Bald eagle! Well, a wannabe, but who cares? Go America!
Back home in Ohio, Dave "Smiles" from our group – so called to differentiate him from the three other Daves we trained with, because he is perpetually smiling – had this 4th of July tradition he called Jortstock: he and his friends would cut up jeans into short shorts (jorts), which they would celebrate the holiday in all day long. Smiles, Boy Devon, and I decided to carry on the tradition. In light of it being America's birthday, I chose to make my jorts out of a pair of Obama Jeanswear jeans, a cheap Chinese brand with OBAMA stitched across the back pockets and legs. They were hideous, of course, but an entirely necessary component of our Jortstock 2010 take on the Iwo Jima war memorial:

It's not gay if you're doing it for America.
At the end of the weekend, we all took the boat back to the mainland. The trip only took two hours this time, with placid water and sunny skies the whole way. Of course, dozens of people carriers were waiting for us at Kasenyi. As we neared the shore, we could see them jostling each other, each determined to grab one of us out of the boat and take our money. Everyone on board was tense, waiting for the onslaught. It was like D-Day. When we reached the shallows, the carriers dashed towards us and started pushing the boat back. They wanted to keep us in deeper water so that we had no choice but to be carried. Our driver, though, knew the carriers' sheisty ways. He gunned the outboard motor as hard as he could, blasting them out of the way and landing us safely on shore. The Americans won the battle. A perfect end to a perfect 4th of July weekend.

Getting spanked with an American flag flip flop while wearing Obama jorts. Could I get more patriotic?

Charlene sings into her "mic" on the ride back

April 20, 2011

Killing to Live

Here, meat doesn't come wrapped in plastic on a styrofoam tray, with a barcode sticker slapped on the outside. That's the stuff of the First World. Here in Africa, if want to cook meat, you're going to have to kill the animal it came from yourself. That or come face to face with its hacked-up innards at a village butcher. Either way, you are confronted, point blank, with the consequence of your decision to be carnivorous: something is going to die so that you can live.

That being said, I still eat meat in Uganda because meat is just too tasty to ever give up. But now I have a fuller appreciation for what has to happen to turn a living, breathing animal into food for people. Blood and guts are an inevitable part of that process. In my opinion, if you can't handle the gore of the slaughter, you don't deserve to eat meat.

I had my first experience with slaughtering an animal this past Thanksgiving. I was celebrating the holiday at my friend Jake's house in northern Uganda, along with my other PCV friends Bernadette and Siong, and PCRV (Peace Corps Response Volunteer—a former Volunteer who opts to do a short term deployment in an area of critical need and sometimes higher risk) Bill. Though Thanksgiving is of course a day for eating turkey, turkeys can be difficult to find in Uganda, so we decided to buy two live cocks instead.

Eager to earn the right to eat chicken for the rest of my life, I volunteered to slaughter the first cock. Afterwards, I described the experience to my oldest friend Daniel, who lives in New York, over instant messenger. Here's an excerpt from the chat log:

(11:46:42 PM) Me: but the chicken....
(11:46:55 PM) Me: it was kind of intense
Bernadette and I, dressed to kill.

(11:47:21 PM) Me: my heart was pounding as i walked with it to the spot where i was going to kill it
(11:47:36 PM) Me: it felt like some really important initiation rite
(11:48:29 PM) Me: my friend showed me how to pin it to the ground, then plucked some feathers from its neck to clear a spot for the knife
(11:49:21 PM) Me: and then told me that it's simple, but once you start you absolutely cannot stop cutting until the head's off
(11:50:21 PM) Me: so i pinned the wings back with knee, grabbed the head and stretched out the neck
(11:50:31 PM) Me: and stated slicing

(11:51:52 PM) Me: severed the windpipe, some blood shot out, the chicken was struggling frantically, then i hit the neckbone and got stuck for a few seconds
(11:52:49 PM) Me: it was a bit fucked up. i felt bad cause obviously the spinal cord was still intact but the entire front of its neck was cut all the way through
(11:53:18 PM) Me: so i sawed and sawed as hard as i can until i cracked through the bone and the head was off
(11:54:13 PM) Me: and chickens really can run around with their head cut off. i had to hold it to the ground for about five minutes before the heart and powerful muscle spasms stopped. it was kicking that whole time
(11:56:13 PM) Me: my other friend bernadette also killed another chicken after me, but she was scared so she closed her eyes and made the cut too low
(11:56:33 PM) Me: hers was smaller so the neck was thinner and the head came off almost instantly
(11:57:58 PM) Me: but the low cut made the esophagus come out and flop around wildly like one of those children's water toys that you hook up to an outdoor spigot. it flailed around and shot blood all over bernadette
(12:00:59 AM) Me: dude but the most disgusting part wasnt the actual kill. it was making a circular incision around the anus and pulling all of the innards out from the back
(12:01:39 AM) Me: … pulling out a chicken anus is fucking nasty
(12:03:11 AM) Me: me and jake (another friend whose house we were at) both accidentally cut open the stomach and all this half digested food spilled inside the chickens, which smelled HORRIBLE
(12:04:00 AM) Me: … all in all its incredibly gruesome, but in the end it looked like a whole chicken you'd buy in a store
Cock pluckin' motha ukkas.
(12:04:51 AM) Me: … we made "beer can chicken": drink half a can of beer, stick the can up the chicken's ass, and bake it. the beer evaporates into steam and cooks the chicken from the inside

With our masterful culinary skills, a bucket oven (a small pot resting on some stones within a larger, covered pot, placed over a fire – the standard Peace Corps substitute for an actual oven), and some Lowry's seasoning salt, we managed to prepare a decent main course. Siong's Chinese stir-fry made the meal a complete, albeit unconventional, Thanksgiving dinner.

Since killing my first chicken, I've killed just one other, as well as watch another Volunteer slaughter a goat in Fort Portal this past weekend. (We marinated the meat in soy sauce and meat tenderizer, skewered it, and grilled it. The grill itself was made from an empty oil barrel halved lengthwise and mounted on 4 metal legs, with some scrap mesh fencing placed over the hot coals.) I'd upload the video of the kill, but it's hard to upload a file of that size on my slow Internet connection. Besides, it's incredibly disgusting. For now, I'll leave you with some pictures of the delicious aftermath.

Slaughtering an animal for food is powerful experience. I encourage every meat eater to try it at least once. It'll help you appreciate the cost of your survival.

Brian cuts the meat over some banana leaves
Kristin (PCV Paraguay, left) and Elizabeth fan the flames
Several people had birthdays, so we finished the meal with homemade chocolate and carrot cake.
Renee, Alexi, Boy Devon, and Girl Devon blow out the candles

March 30, 2011

Back to School / A Rant About Fear

Registration of new students.

Having grown up in the US, where the school year begins in September, I tend to associate going back to school with the end of summer and its promises of cooler weather, falling leaves, pumpkin pie, and all that autumnal stuff. Here in Uganda, though, the school year begins in early February, at the height of a long dry season. Instead of falling leaves, there's falling ash from farmers burning their dead, dry fields in preparation for the coming wet season. The sun shines bright and hot every day; it goes for weeks without raining. Overcrowded taxis rocket down the dirt highway I live on, sending up opaque plumes of red dust that find their way into every corner of every house. The dust is so thick you can practically chew the air. In short, it's a far cry from pumpkin pie.

Still, the back-to-school season here is a time for starting fresh, just like in the States. After a long "winter" break that included some HIV/AIDS education work with the US Embassy, an awesome visit from my family, a safari, hiking up a 12,000-foot volcano into three countries, and a rollicking trip through Egypt with two of my best friends just days before Hosni Mubarak was overthrown (I'm a little behind in posting, can't you tell?), I returned to teaching last month. It was nice starting school from the beginning of the school year. When I swore into service last April and headed out to the field, I began teaching in the second academic term, with very little idea of what I was doing, how to manage a class, or how a Ugandan school functions. Now, with two full terms of teaching and eleven months of service under my belt, I can confidently say that I have some idea of what I'm doing. Well, some idea of what I'm doing wrong, anyway, and possible ideas for how to do things right.

I took pictures of the whole Senior 2 class holding name cards to help me learn their names. The kids whose names I managed to learn last year tended to pass my class.

The first thing I made sure to do differently this year was put together a syllabus for each class I was teaching, and give a printed copy to every kid. Uganda is not very literate or text-oriented society ("reading culture is not there," as the locals say), so this kind of direct, written communication, especially to students in a government school, is extremely uncommon. In my syllabi, I outline my class rules, grading scheme, topics to be covered, office hours, etc. This ensures that my students know what to expect from me and what I expect of them. In doing this, my goals are to establish clear, two-way communication between myself and my students, to replace ambiguity with black-and-white, and to eradicate the traditional Ugandan teacher-student relationship from my classroom.

The traditional relationship is built around the idea that the student who fears his teacher learns best, because he is motivated to study hard in order to avoid punishment. Almost every Ugandan teacher I've met is dead-set in this mentality; the idea that our students are failing tests because they didn't fear the teacher enough to study hard ("they are not serious [about studying] because they are not fearing [us]") comes up at every faculty meeting. Some teachers will cane students for failing tests, in order to inspire fear, which they believe will encourage students to "pull up" their grades. I have literally shaken with rage when I've seen this happen. Imagine 30 teenaged girls in a line, shrieking like wounded animals as they are whipped one-by-one with thick sticks, while a few other teachers off to the side watch and laugh. It's fucking sick. Corporal punishment is never appropriate in my book (using violence to solve nonviolent problems – is that something we want to impart to future generations?), but especially not in this case. Though it's true that students in my school should be studying a lot harder than they are, that alone is not the reason for their poor performance. Large classes, no textbooks, the failure of teachers to show up for class (a huge problem here), and lecturing unclearly or ineffectively when they do . . . these also factor into bad grades. By beating kids for bad grades, teachers are blaming students for their own failings as educators. Fucked up, no?

The larger issue here, I think, is that this society confuses fear with respect. "Fearing God" and "fearing your parents" are commonly cited as values that should be instilled in children by schools and other institutions. Disgustingly enough, USAID funds the development of many Ugandan-made PIASCY (President's Initiative on AIDS Strategy for Communication to the Youth) materials that promote these same values. I show the federal government how I feel about this misuse of my taxes by wiping my ass with PIASCY pamphlets whenever I run out of toilet paper. While fear can in some cases inspire respect, fear and respect are not the same. Fear creates hierarchy when one person, to protect themselves from harm, submits to the will of another person who would otherwise harm them. Fear drives the submissive person to respect the other's authority. I believe that Ugandan society is really after this respect of authority, not the fear itself. Students and children should be doing what their teachers and parents tell them to do; they should be heeding to the requests of the authority figures in their lives. Inspiring fear is just one way of getting this to happen, and an extremely flawed one at that. In schools, the use of fear by teachers has some crippling side effects: students become too scared to ask questions in class, attempt work that they might make a mistake on (so they literally cannot learn from their mistakes!), or correct the teacher when he or she makes a mistake. Once again, we are smacked in the face by the twisted irony of the traditional Ugandan teacher-student relationship: the teacher uses fear to force the student to show respect and learn better, but this makes the student too scared to learn. The student fails the class. The teacher has thus failed at his job, but blames the student entirely for this outcome. The teacher then uses fear to force the student to show respect and learn better, and the cycle repeats.

Let me end this rant before my righteous foaming at the mouth spills over and damages the keyboard. To be brief, this year I am trying new methods to earn the respect of my students and help them master course material. These methods use positive reinforcement (rewards, pleasant interactions, etc.) rather than fear to generate respect. My classes are still large (there are 158 kids in my new Senior 1 class) and sometimes rowdy, but learning is definitely happening, and my students have a noticebly more positive relationship with me than with most of the other teachers, who scare and heckle them constantly. Maybe I can help the other teachers see that there multiple paths to respect; I'd like to think I can. We'll see.

Stay tuned for my next post. I'll tell you all about my secondary projects, with at least 40% less rant. Promise.

March 25, 2011

Rocket Stoves

The three stone fire is an essential component of Ugandan cooking, and is as ingrained in local culture as the languages Ugandans speak. The set-up is simple: a wood fire, three stones placed around the fire, and a pot resting on top of the stones, filled with simmering meat stew, rice, or matooke bananas. This (or a similar variation) is how the majority of Ugandans prepare their food. The formula hasn't changed much since humanity first learned to harness the power of flame.

Unfortunately, this simple way of cooking has some serious drawbacks. First of all, the smoke given off by a three stone fire is a major cause of respiratory illness. Many Ugandan homes have a separate hut for cooking so that the smoke doesn't enter the house itself, but that doesn't do much for the cook, who must tend to the food and the fire for hours on end (Uganda has America beat on the slow food movement by a good 12 centuries or so). Secondly, the combustion reactions that happen in a wood fire release tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. Finally, a three stone fire wastes wood: the large gaps between the stones expose the burning wood to lots of air, allowing heat to escape without cooking the food, and causing the wood to burn up quickly. Wasting wood here is no laughing matter; Uganda is currently suffering from severe deforestation, to the extent that it may need to begin importing wood from neighboring Kenya, a costly move. Many Ugandans have planted eucalyptus trees, which reach maturity in just four years, to combat deforestation, but this is not without its own pitfalls. Eucalyptus is not native to Africa; it was introduced to the continent from Australia in the late 18th century on one of Captain Cook's round-the-world voyages. In African soil, the tree is a notorious water hog, drainining so much moisture from the ground so that nothing but short grass can grow nearby. Not good in a place where upwards of 80% of the population are farmers.

Enter the "rocket stove". The rocket stove is a marvelous device made of locally available materials, including bricks, clay, mud, sawdust, and rice husks. It seals in the heat of a wood fire, directing most of the energy towards the cooking pot with minimal losses. It creates a nearly smokeless fire. It uses 60% less wood than a three stone fire. And a twin burner industrial size model (ideal for schools) costs less than $200 to make.

PCV Heather shows us how it's done.

The rocket stove is scientifically designed to make the world more awesome.

This past weekend I made the six-hour trek up to Gulu, a large town in northern Uganda, to help Drew and Bina, two married Volunteers, build some rocket stoves at their site. The event was the first of a series that I'll be attending this year as part of Peace Corps' 50th anniversary celebration. Upcoming events include rehabilitating a primary school south of Kampala next weekend, and painting informational HIV/AIDS murals at my friend Ashley's site in Rakai District, near the Tanzanian border.
I liked Gulu a lot. It's a much larger and nicer town than Hoima, which is probably attributable to the development work done by the gazillions of NGOs that call it home. Northern Uganda receives a lot of foreign aid because of the rebel warfare that ravaged its countryside for twenty years, forcing millions of people into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and annihilating any kind of economic activity. The NGOs that flock to set up shop in Gulu bring in foreign workers (read: young, idealistic upper middle-class white folks), which encourages locals, and some of the foreigners, to create businesses that cater to them. Needless to say, I spent a lot of the long weekend indulging in all things mzungu: chatting in trendy coffee shops, eating hamburgers, Indian, and Ethiopian food, and floating on my back in the pool of an upscale hotel.

But somewhere between eating good food and partying with NGO workers, we managed to get two rocket stoves built for Drew and Bina's host organization, the Gulu Youth Development Association (GYDA), which provides classes and vocational training to youth unable to go to secondary school for behavioral or other reasons. The turnout was fantastic. We had way more than enough help, which was great because it meant that the PCVs could take a step back and let the locals learn how to make the stoves themselves.

PCV Jill oversees the bricklaying operation.

Still, we enjoyed getting our hands and feet dirty:

Mixing termite mound soil (part dirt, part clay) with water, sawdust, and rice husks to create mud. Kind of like stomping grapes! When the mud mixture is exposed to fire, the sawdust and rice husks burn up, leaving behind tiny holes that trap heat, turning the stove into a great insulator. Your coffee mug works the same way.

I had to get back to site early in order to teach, so I left before the stoves were finished, but all in all it was a fun, productive weekend.

And now, some cute Acholi kids:

February 18, 2011


American tea (Celestial Seasonings brand):
Ugandan tea:
Teabag marketing: a development level indicator? Discuss.

February 13, 2011

One Year in Africa

This past Friday marked one year since I first set foot in Uganda, one year of being in the Peace Corps. I'm proud of reaching this milestone, and of the 27 phenomenal PCVs I trained with who made it this far with me. It's been a crazy year, full of high highs, low lows, discovery, adaptation, and adventure. I could not ask for a richer or grittier experience.

The "toughest job you'll ever love" cliché that Peace Corps Washington delights in stuffing down our throats has of course turned out to be an accurate description of what being a Volunteer is like (hey, clichés are clichés for a reason). I've made some great friends and had some outstanding times, but cakewalk, this job is not. I've had to adapt to a simpler lifestyle that does not include running water, modern appliances, convenient transportation, reliable electricity, or access to a variety of foods, music, or consumer goods. I've accepted the fact that I will often be hot and sweaty and that there's no A/C or iced drink to cool me down. I've gotten exotic illnesses like dysentery and malaria, and will probably be able to check a few more off the Oregon Trail list before I get out of here. I've dealt with isolation and loneliness, and suffered debilitating psychological side effects from a malaria prophylaxis (thankfully I switched to a different malaria medicine in August, which fixed things almost immediately). I've experienced firsthand what rampant corruption, disfunctional democracy, hateful tribalism, and utterly inept educational systems can do to a society. I've banged my head against the wall in anger and frustration with the shitty, illogical ways Ugandans do things. And I've struggled to become a competent teacher in spite of having unmanageably large classes, students who barely speak English, no textbooks, and not a whole lot of teacher training myself. But far from defeating me, these challenges have made me stronger, more versatile, and more determined to succeed in initiating social progress.

Sometimes the hardening of my character has come at the cost of human empathy. Abject poverty is so omnipresent here that you become desensitized to it after a while. When a barefoot Karamojong child comes up to me on the street in her tattered clothing, asking for money, I feel nothing. My thought process supresses the emotional and makes a beeline for the rational: Why should I help this particular kid when there are thousands more just like her? That's probably her mom sitting there across the street, whoring her out for muzungu pity-money. Giving her some coins is not sustainable. Handouts generate foreign aid dependency.

For the most part, though, the changes I've noticed in myself have been overwhelmingly positive. I feel more confident and independent. I am more self-motivated, inclined to work on projects or refine my teaching skills, not because somebody is telling me to, but because I want to. I am more pragmatic because I have a better understanding of my limitations and factors that are within my control. And I am more patriotic because of the perspectives I've gained from serving here. America has its fair share of problems, for sure, but at least it has a working multiparty democracy, rule of law, accountability, truly free and quality public education, sanitary and accessible medical care, an innovative spirit, cutting-edge technology, effective social welfare programs, advanced industries, developed markets, and the strength that comes from a population diverse in ethnic background, aspirations, and thought. [Fuck yeah!]

After being in Africa for a year, I miss America. I really really do. But that's a good thing because it means I appreciate my home, and in ways I wouldn't have appreciated it had I not come here. Perhaps that's what I'm supposed to take away from this whole experience. And perhaps "the toughest job you'll ever love" is really about channelling that appreciation into positive conversations about the U.S. with locals, and into projects that sprout American ideas in host country soil.

Year two, bring it on.